Wilkins and Photography

Jeff Maynard knows more about Wilkins, the photographs he took, and those taken of him, than anyone else in the world.

So we are indeed fortunate that Jeff is prepared to initiate and contribute to a ‘Wilkins and Photography’ page.

Jeff is currently working on an illustrated book of Wilkins’s photographs. Here he shares something of this project; and a remarkable coincidence involving a well known pioneer in the revival of interest in Sir Hubert Wilkins.

Image: Sir Hubert Wilkins 1933
by Irving Browning

National Portrait Gallery, Australia

Wilkins in the Early Australian Film Industry

By Jeff Maynard

Jeff Maynard’s latest book is The Illustrated Sir Hubert Wilkins. It features over 200 photographs of Wilkins, the majority of which have never been published. Details are at www.netfieldpublishing.com.au

Until recently, it has been difficult to find much information about Sir Hubert Wilkins’s time in Sydney, where he became involved in the early Australian cinema industry. But new documents located overseas, when combined with the research being undertaken in Australia, give a more complete picture of this period of Wilkins’s life.

Wilkins left Adelaide in April 1909 and stowed away on a ship bound for Sydney. He carried references from his two employers in Adelaide: Bruce’s Carnival, and electrical engineers Bullock & Fulton. He probably arrived in Sydney in late April or early May 1909.

Describing his arrival in Sydney, Wilkins wrote in an unpublished manuscript:

I got over the side quick. Right then I decided that I had had all I wanted of beating my way; it sounded romantic when other men did it, but I do not feel that way about it. To make up for the way I had been living on the boat, I got a room at a first class hotel. As soon as I had a bath, changed my clothes and had a meal, I got a newspaper and looked through in search of a job. There was an advertisement for a man to fix an engine. This man, Waddington, had a small engine which furnished electric light for a small moving picture theatre. The engine had broken down, and four or five mechanics had failed to fix it. I looked at it and found it was a two-cycle engine; I had never had any experience at all with a two-cycle engine.

The ‘first class hotel’ where Wilkins got a room was probably the Federal Hotel on the corner of Miller and Mount Streets, North Sydney. It has since been demolished. It was an 1880s boom hotel of three storeys and ‘first class’ in 1909. The man Waddington that Wilkins mentions is Frank Waddington, an early Australian theatre operator. Waddington had recently established an open air theatre on the corner of Miller Street and Berry Street, North Sydney, which was a short walking distance to the Federal Hotel.

Wilkins goes on to describe fixing the engine and getting a job with Waddington. The job involved running the projector in the evening. This left him time during the day and he bought a small electrical business, expecting his career to be that of an electrical engineer:

Meanwhile, Sydney was going movie-mad. More than a hundred new shows were opened in twelve months. The electrical firms had nobody on their staffs who understood moving pictures, and that was the kind of service that was wanted. So I made myself a consulting engineer; all the electrical firms gave me the job of going to all the new shows and deciding what kind of power they needed. That year Waddington formed a company and opened eight moving picture houses, and he made me assistant manager for all of them. I selected the programs, visited each theatre every night, hired the staffs, kept the accounts and banked the money. These two jobs kept me busy enough, and I was making quite a bit of money. For amusement in my spare time I took up photography.

Wilkins goes on to talk about learning still photography and enjoying taking pictures ‘of my girlfriends’. This is a clue to why we have so little from this era, because I suspect the 21-year-old had a busy time in Sydney photographing girls. After his death, Wilkins’s wife Suzanne probably destroyed a lot of material from this era, because she was extremely jealous.

So throughout 1910 Wilkins was making money as a consulting electrical engineer and managing theatres in the evening. Once all the new theatres had electricity installed, that work plateaued. But he must have made good money because some time during 1910 he bought himself an expensive French motor car, a Panhard Type X14. This is a seven-seater tourer.

Bob Pritchard had first met Wilkins when Wilkins had joined Bruce’s Carnival in Adelaide in mid-1908. Pritchard was a travelling chemical salesman, and the film industry and chemicals were closely interlinked. Pritchard later said in a speech:

For a while I lost sight of him and leaving South Australia I landed in Sydney to find my old friend, a cinema operator in a tent show at North Sydney. In the meantime I had acquired a liking for the drug and chemical business and travelled the country and only had my weekends in the city. We used to see each other from time to time, keeping in touch. During that time he not only operated the picture machine in the show, he became a photographer and made moving pictures in his spare time.

This seems to imply the Pritchard landed in Sydney late in 1909 or early 1910 when Wilkins was the cinema operator in the tent show in North Sydney. The pair stayed in touch in Sydney and during that time Wilkins started making moving pictures.

Pritchard specifically says a ‘tent show in North Sydney’. This fits with the ‘Waterproof Waddington’s’, stamp at the beginning of Wilkins’s 1911 diary/notebook. This stamp shows Waddington’s theatre on the corner of Berry and Miller Streets, North Sydney; the distinctive clock tower pictured behind the tent is the North Sydney Post Office clock tower (still in existence), and the Federal Hotel, where Wilkins was staying, was located opposite the Post Office.

During 1911, while still managing theatres for Waddington, Wilkins bought his first cinematograph (movie camera) and taught himself to use it and develop films. In an unpublished manuscript he talks about buying his first movie camera from a ‘professional cameraman’. The professional cameraman was A. F. Moulton: Wilkins’s 1911 diary/notebook says on the page marked ‘4 January 1911’: ‘Bought Urban Cinematograph Camera. A. F. Moulton.’

There is an often published photograph of Wilkins in Sydney with his movie camera, and a close examination shows that the camera is an Urban Bioscope Model D. So this matches what Wilkins has written in his notebook.

Deciphering the notes Wilkins has written in his 1911 notebook, we can see that he remains friends with Moulton, and at the same time, teaches himself how to use his movie camera and process films.

For example, on January 17, he writes: ‘took [illegible] of Panhard, Moulton took three views of George Street. Bought bottle Rodinal Developer’.

I believe what has happened here is that Wilkins and Moulton have jumped in Wilkins’s car (the Panhard) and driven around from North Sydney (they would have driven over the old Gladesville Bridge) to George Street, Sydney. Harrington’s, the photographic supply company, was located at 386 George Street, and Gaumonts, which supplied camera equipment and accessories, was located over the road at 379 George Street (there are letters in Wilkins’s papers showing that he dealt with both of these companies.) Wilkins and Moulton have probably stocked up on supplies, then Wilkins has put the top down on the Panhard and Moulton has set up his tripod over the back seat and taken views of George Street while Wilkins has driven along it.

From this point onwards, we start to get clues about the films Wilkins was shooting.

There are also letters in Wilkins’s papers from the Australian Photo-Play company, which made newsreels. Australian Photo-Play was registered as a film production company in June 1911. A week after it was registered, the proprietor, S. Crick, (according to a letter) gave Wilkins a job as a test of his ability. In this hectic period of production, anyone who had a movie camera and could operate it would have been getting work. Certainly, Moulton and others also made films for Australian Photo-Play.

Wilkins also worked for the short-lived Australian Film Syndicate. The Syndicate was located at 75 Walker Street, North Sydney, so again it was not far from Waddington’s theatre on Berry Street, and the Federal Hotel. Wilkins definitely shot Gamblers Gold for the Australian Film Syndicate. The Syndicate went into receivership and Australian Films Ltd was started in its place and released Gamblers Gold.

But Wilkins was still managing theatres for Waddington, while shooting films.  Wilkins wrote:

We opened the first theatre in Sydney that resembled a modern moving picture house. I had charge of the design of this theatre. We ran a continuous program from eleven o’clock in the morning, and we had uniformed and trained ushers and an up-to-date orchestra. Nothing of the kind had been seen in Sydney and it was a sensation.

Bob Pritchard, his friend from Adelaide said in a speech:

There is no question he made good pictures and to prove this, on the opening night of the Strand Picture Theatre in Pitt Street, I came along to see him [Wilkins]. During the interval he said, ‘I am off to England. Gaumonts have offered me a job and I go soon’. I felt a bit sad. We agreed to always keep in touch with each other. All through these years we have kept in touch, although at times there was a good stretch between letters.

Pritchard gets the name of the theatre in Pitt Street almost correct.  It was Waddington’s Grand Theatre (not Strand) in Pitt Street and it opened in January 1912 and showed continuous films from 11.00 am. to 11.00 pm.

On 11 February 1912 Wilkins advertised his car for sale in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Must sell. Owner leaving state. 25 h.p. Panhard Car £150 or nearest offer. Apply by letter only. G. Wilkins, Care Federal Hotel, North Sydney.

Other things that have come to light recently are the fact that Wilkins sat for portrait photographs with pioneer photographer Harold Cazneaux, who had a studio and lived nearby in North Sydney. Wilkins’s portraits, at the Byrd Polar Climate and Research Center, OSU, Ohio, have ‘H. Cazneaux, N. Sydney’ in the margin. This again is an interesting sidelight, because Harold Cazneaux is Dick Smith’s grandfather. One of Wilkins’s biggest admirers, until recently Smith was unaware his grandfather and Wilkins knew each other.

Also, when Dick Smith visited the Wilkins farm in Pennsylvania in the early 1980s, he was given a coin holder that belonged to Wilkins. The coin holder was a gift to Wilkins by Frank Waddington. It is inscribed with the words,

Presented to G.H. WILKINS ESQ. As a token of esteem by the Managing Director and Staff of Waddington’s Pictures, Sydney N.S.Wales. February 18th 1912, On his departure for Europe.

Wilkins sailed from Sydney on the Friedrich Der Gross on 21 February 1912. He wrote a letter to his mother which up the top has: ‘Fremantle, Thursday’, which would make it 29 February 1912. The letter says:

Dear Mother,

Just a note to let you know that everything is satisfactory so far. We are just leaving Fremantle and I will give this to the pilot to post. It may not be long before I am back. Hoping that you will keep in good health, much love from your loving son,


P.S: I have decided to leave the boat at Port Said and go to England by train through [illegible] and France and so save time. Love George.